Most people have little idea what an engineer is or does, or so reports the National Academy of Engineers. "They don't recognize that it's a marvelous path to make an impact and change the world," says Ian Waitz, dean of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). If the notion of an engineer is a little fuzzy for the average person, then you can be sure the average K-12 student has even less of an idea. "Engineering is an abstraction for kids that young," adds Chad Galts, MIT's director of communications. "It's a guy that drives a train, you know."
To end this state of affairs, Rebecca Fearing, Galts and Waitz, along with their colleagues at MIT, have started a new initiative aimed at younger learners. It's called "MIT+K12." In essence, it's a website with three to five minute videos that teach basic STEM material (science, technology, engineering, and math). Each clip is produced by an MIT student.
Contributing to Education
"We have 10,000 of the brightest future engineers and scientists who are very focused now on giving back and contributing to big societal problems," says Waitz. "The idea was to take these bright young students and have them contribute to K–12 education in a very positive way."
Screenshot of student-created video "Forces on an Airplane" explaining the principles of air flight. Source: K12videos.mit.edu
Head to the site and you can see 30-odd student-made videos ranging from "How Information Travels Wirelessly" and "The Physics of Unicycling" to "Bouncing Droplets: Superhydrophobic and Superhydrophilic Surfaces" and "Series and Parallel Circuits: A Water Analogy." The videos are always fun and very often funny. Another 40 or so are on their way. With little effort made to promote them they have already earned 90,000 views.
The material is drawn, in a general way, from the curriculum of several states. But the students, who earn $1,000 to produce a single video, are encouraged to follow their muse. "We don't want to put too many constraints on our students because we want them to be creative," says Waitz. "But we want it to be a guided creation where they do valuable things." The videos are supplements, not meant to replace a course on any subject. But educators hoping to see specific material covered can register at the site and make a suggestion.
STEM for Web 2.0
The advantages of using MIT's idealistic youngsters extend beyond their wits. Typically, they're handier with today's technology than their elders, and, presumably, more in tune with mindset of young viewers. A tenured professor might be uncomfortable putting out something informal for the Web 2.0. And a lecture at a blackboard isn't going to captivate a sixth-grader. "Sometimes, when you have a highly polished video, it doesn't connect as well with 12-year-old kids who are used to seeing all kinds of rough-cut things on YouTube," says Waitz.
The sharpness of the MIT student producers does have a drawback: They tend to make clips for a fairly advanced audience. "Some of the guidance that we give to students is 'Focus on middle school,'" says Waitz. "Then something comes out more appropriate for high school. We'll say elementary, and we'll get middle school. If we wanted kindergarten we'd have to ask, 'What would you say to someone in the womb?'"
If a child of any age ends up turning toward science and engineering, then MIT has met its goal. "The main gap we're hoping to cover is to let students, parents, and teachers understand in a much more tangible way who engineers and scientists are and what they do and what they're like," says Waitz. "We're just doing this because we hope to change the world."
Michael Abrams is an independent writer.
We have 10,000 of the brightest future engineers and scientists who are very focused now on giving back and contributing to big societal problems.
Ian Waitz, dean of engineering, MIT
More on this topic
While most science classes teach elementary school kids about the natural world around them, the Engineering is Elementary program teaches kids about ...
Sally Ride, America's first woman in space, insisted that America must put extra emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math in order to ...